I went to see Downfall last night with Kirsten and some of her friends. I’m sure it’s a flagrant breach of some strict social protocol to see a film about Hitler with several Germans, but I had intended to see it several months ago when it was released, and it came highly recommended by Martin. Kirsten seemed slightly surprised despite the fact it was on the list. It’s not an easy film to watch by any stretch of the imagination. While any war film will contain its share of brutal scenes, unlike those that cover the full spectrum of a conflict, Downfall deals only with the very end of the war, a nation on its knees awaiting the inevitable. The result is both relentless and highly compelling, with a phenomenal portrayal of Hitler’s last days by Bruno Ganz. A sympathetic portrayal in its introduction, it shows him as a grandfatherly character, later losing his mind as swiftly as his country, hand shaking uncontrollably, and finally as the ferocious leader who would sacrifice any number of lives to achieve his goals, screaming at his generals and blaming for his own failures the very German people who were loyally dying at his command. I was shaken by it, and Kirsten understandably more so (“They’re not his people,” she corrected me, “he’s not even German…”). In England we barely remember the state London was in, let alone the war-torn husk of Berlin which greets us here. And yet Downfall also manages to produce a positive cathartic experience akin to this year’s emotional powerhouse Crash.
I love to study the character and history of such great world leaders precisely because I fail to believe in the indivual’s power to alter the course of history. Rather I tend to believe in what I call the tide of history, this force of inevitability that pushes humanity along its journey in a more structuralist way. Of course there is no denying the vile acts of Hitler and equally his oratory and inspirational strengths, I feel that much of the blame lies with the Allied powers at the end of the WWI. After all, the alleged “second” world war was really a continuation of the same conflict after a brief respite. The ridiculous attempt to crush a nation through peace treaties and expect them to set aside their pride and subject themselves to a degrading cowed state was clearly going to stir up precisely the bitterness and anger which led to a man like Hitler being adulated and elected. He was not alone in his sentiments, perhaps only in extent.